Difficult Bible Passages – the Nephilim or Giants of Genesis 6:4

Who are the Nephilim or Giants mentioned in Genesis?

[Genesis 6]
{6:1} And when men began to be multiplied upon the earth, and daughters were born to them,
{6:2} the sons of God, seeing that the daughters of men were beautiful, took to themselves wives from all whom they chose.
{6:3} And God said: “My spirit shall not remain in man forever, because he is flesh. And so his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”

The “sons of God” in this passage are not angels, but human persons. An angel, good or bad, cannot take a wife or conceive a child. Angels do not have bodies; they cannot have offspring of any kind.

Saint Augustine and others say that this passage refers to the lineages of Seth and Cain. The children of Seth were holy and close to God, so they are called “sons of God”. The children of Cain lived secular lives apart from the true worship of God, so they are called “of men” rather than “of God”. So it is also today. Some persons live holy lives of love, faith, and hope; others live secular lives of selfishness.

My interpretation is a more generalized version of what Augustine said. People have free will, so not all the children of Seth were holy, and not all the children of Cain were worldly. The sons of God are those persons who stayed close to God in their lives, and the sons of men are those who lived merely secular lives. Adam and Eve knew God because they lived initially in the paradise of Eden. Some of their descendants learned about God from them, and lived holy lives; others of their descendants soon fell away from the worship of God through selfishness.

In the Bible, the term ‘son of’ does not necessarily connote lineage. For example, those who commit adultery are called, ‘sons of adulterers,’ not because their parents were also adulterers, but because they act as if they were sons of adultery personified. There were, in ancient times, prior to any organized religion as we have today, some who were holy, who lived close to God. But these “sons of God” were attracted to women who were not holy, who lived secular lives, who are called “of men” rather than “of God”.

{6:4} Now giants [Latin: Gigantes; Hebrew: Nephilim] were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they conceived, these became the powerful ones of ancient times, men of renown.

The term giants is a figurative element in this part of the story of Noah, which we might term the ‘preface’ of the Flood story. A literal approach to this verse is problematic. There is no historical or archaeological evidence of a race of giants. These “giants” are explained as the children of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men”. But neither of the parents in this description were giants themselves. So science and reason indicate that the literal interpretation is incorrect.

As a figure of speech, the term “giants” works well in this verse. The believers in God (“sons of God”) were great before God and man. So even when they married unbelievers, their children still attained to a certain greatness, benefitting from having at least one parent who was a believer. These children became great in secular society, but perhaps not so great before God. They were “powerful ones,” that is “men of renown”. So this verse presents to us the proper understanding of the figure “giants”. It refers to persons who were great within civilization: powerful and renown men and women in secular society. These were not literal giants.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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